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Ben Vereen Sings a Song from ‘Pippin’ — Plus Notes on Fosse vs. Schwartz

Watch as Ben Vereen commands the stage in “Magic to Do,” the opening to the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin.

This is from a 1981 production — nine years after Ben Vereen made his big splash in the original Broadway production of Pippin in 1972. That production was directed by the legendary Bob Fosse and was Tony-nominated as best musical. Fosse and Vereen both won Tonys, as best director and best leading actor in a musical.

There can’t be too many better opening numbers out there, on Broadway or off.  When this number ends I am *ready to watch a musical,* baby. And I’ve also gotten the hint that it’s going to be a little more twisted than I might want, which is an important emotional tip.

Wish we could go back and see this number by the original Broadway cast, which included Ann Reinking, Jill Clayburgh and Granny Clampett herself, Irene Ryan (who died during the show’s run after having a stroke onstage).

I’ve read many times over the years that Stephen Schwartz and Bob Fosse were at each other’s throats while staging the original Broadway show. Schwartz wanted it to be jolly fun but the all-powerful Fosse took it down a dark and depraved road, that’s the usual take.

But Schwartz says in a PDF on his website that it ain’t really so:

The differences between the “Bob Fosse version” of PIPPIN and mine have always been much exaggerated. The media thrive on controversy, and much of this one was invented by them. Though Bob and I did not have a particularly easy time working together, our visions for the show did not diverge all that much. One of our biggest differences was about the ending — believe it or not, two words specifically — whether or not Pippin should say he was “trapped … but happy” or just “trapped” at the end.
My issue with Bob Fosse was not so much the darkness of his vision but the tawdriness and the emphasis on bumps and grinds and cheap jokes. I also felt that the Leading Player was undercutting the focus on Pippin in some cases and forcing Pippin to become a relatively one-dimensional character.
Which is true. Still, working with Fosse wasn’t all beer and skittles:
Bob was notoriously difficult for authors to work with (one long-time collaborator of his once smilingly said to me, when I brought up his name, “You mean The Antichrist?”) That being said, his creativity and talent ultimately outweighed the difficulty of collaborating with him, at least in my opinion. I don’t know that there is a contemporary director/choreographer who has as distinctive a personal style as Bob did.
And Schwartz answers a fan’s question about Fosse’s alleged drug and alcohol abuse:
Perhaps it was my youth and naiveté when I worked on PIPPIN, but I saw no evidence of Bob’s drug or alcohol use. While I didn’t find him the easiest personality in the world to deal with, he was always on time, organized and focused — traits not associated with drug or alcohol abuse. Whatever he may have been doing in his off time, he was always entirely professional in his dealings with PIPPIN, as far as I observed.
Fascinating stuff. Schwartz has a lot more about Pippin and his other shows (including Godspell and Wicked) in his official FAQ. Or see our biographies of Ben Vereen, Bob Fosse and Stephen Schwartz.
(Update: Dig this also-wonderful updated version of the same number from the 2013 Tony Awards, with the cast of the circus-themed revival of Pippin.)

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